Everything about him is lore, extraordinary and perennially futuristic. The politician with unthinkable candour, the tycoon entrepreneur who abhors hoarding, the kingmaker without self-interest, the doer who shuns publicity and the action hero with no rhetoric. From Bhanjanagar to New York Times, he straddled both worlds with glorious ease and uncompromising esteem, purely on the strength of Odia identity, which was then not as established as it is now.
The brand identity of Odisha, Biju Patnaik, in many ways continues to be the “first” name of Odisha, an icon who is not only remembered as a politician but a figure who could dream mega and achieve super mega. That is why he is the architect of modern Odisha. It is not only about ports, infrastructure or steel plants; it is about being the spiritual Pegasus. He ushered in hope, entrepreneurial drive, and new international consciousness without a trace of pettiness and lifted the spirits of Odias.
He is perhaps the only superman who ever lived. The statesman’s life is nothing short of a full-bodied feature film that could have been a blockbuster. Many have started working on such a project already. “He can do anything,” that’s what our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, once remarked about him. After all, he did rescue high-profile heads of state from daring roof-top lifts, air-drop food in unchartered terrain during wars, and cycle rides to far away, unfriendly countries much before there were proper roads. “Impossible is nothing,” as it says in a famous sportswear logo, was his lexicon.
Though he was chained at Kala Pani in the Andamans during the freedom struggle, he never carried any bitterness towards anyone. No chains could ever tie him down any way. He was the Houdini in the boondocks land. Full of life, he never ever grudged anyone, nor was he vindictive. In one life, he was a freedom fighter, a skilled pilot, an ace industrialist, a national politician with international standing and a philanthropist of rare selflessness. Once he had mentioned in an official file about granting pardon to a hardcore criminal (after much debate on prison reforms) that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and he helped the convict get pardon and lead a normal life. His notings alone can easily be compiled into a book of wisdom, such was his depth and fearlessness of expression.
National flags of 3 countries – India, Indonesia and Russia – were wrapped around his body on his last journey. Even heads of countries or Premiers do not get such a privilege. But then Biju Patnaik cannot be limited to a state or country. He was meant for the globe and he lived global.
Conferred with ‘Bhumi Putra’, the highest civilian honour of Indonesia for his heroic contribution to that country, Biju babu, the man who was not given to overt expressions of emotions, always left you emotional and chocked.
In the fifties, immediately after Independence, Biju babu built an industrial empire in Odisha that included textile mills, iron ore and manganese mines, a steel mill and plants manufacturing domestic appliances. He set up his own carrier, Kalinga Airlines, at a time when such enterprises were the preserve of a few (not more than a couple of business families in India, Delhi & Bombay).
He displayed dare devilry in all walks of life. Nothing could stop him. His continued relevance among generations of Odias and Indians is unlimited, given that he was expansive with legendary magnanimity. Always fresh and vigorous, he could drop political leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting under British command in Burma, fly supplies to China and the Soviet Union, undertake risky operations across the Himalayas to help the Chinese revolutionaries in Chiang Kai Shek’s China, undertake a mission to Stalingrad, fly clandestine operations that carried leaders from safe houses across India to secret meetings that charted the Independence struggle, be jailed by the British in 1942 until 1946, a year before self-rule, be pro bono defence adviser to Jawaharlal Nehru, innovative entrepreneur, sports enthusiast, and a real-life hero.
Sir Julian Huxley, Unesco’s first director general and also a Kalinga Prize winner, had described Biju Patnaik as a “remarkable Indian whose adventures would fill a book”.
Biju Patnaik set up Kalinga Tubes, the first modern textiles mills in Odisha, the first refrigerator factory and a low-shaft furnace at Barbil. In 1951, he established the Kalinga Prize for Popularisation of Science and entrusted its responsibility to Unesco.
The towering figure who was instrumental in installing the National Front government under V.P. Singh was a known patron of science and technology. In the sixties, he influenced internationally-known biologist, scientist and philosopher Prof J.B.S Haldane to come to Odisha as director of the biometry and genetics laboratory, set up by the government in Bhubaneswar.
Prof Haldane became an Indian citizen in 1960 and devoted himself to the development of science in the country. He was candid in mentioning that he accepted Biju Patnaik’s offer because he was “capable of displaying great respect towards individuals whom he considered to be performing worthwhile work”.
Biju Patnaik had visited the United States as an advisory to the ministry of external affairs in 1992-93 and took up sensitive defence issues with the US administration. During his stay in Washington, he gave interviews to Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, in which he said that he had come to seek both ground-to-ground and air-to-air missiles along with radars, which could conceivably be tied to a network of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO).
US newspapers portrayed Biju Patnaik as a probable successor to India’s then defence minister.
He had once told me: “Life is a game, keep playing”. Equanimity in defeat and win, nothing could affect him, probably because he was much beyond all this. He had seen everything before its time had come. Pelf, power, beauty, punishment, reversals, betrayals and never ever was there an iota of self-pity in him.
Biju Patnaik had once reflected: “In my dream of the 21st century for the state. I would have young men and women who put the interest of the State before them. They will have pride in themselves, confidence; in themselves. They will not be at anybody’s mercy, except their own selves. By their brain, intelligence and capacity, they will recapture the history of Kalinga. I would like my Orissa of the 21st century to have excellent artisans, superb craftsmen and sculptors, greatest musicians and poets”.
Biju babu advocated fiscal autonomy for Odisha and full convertibility of the rupee. Not one for red tapism, his dynamism has given Odisha industries, strong women development policies, Panchayati Raj movement, formations of districts and above all a sense of pride and self-esteem.
He had the courage to run a government with autonomy (self-financing mode) because he always believed in “currency which flows”. The only man who could give away everything on an impulse. A “Babu” in true sense, the “non-publicity seeking” benefactor. The rare magnanimous.
I am fortunate to be from the same soil where such a man ever walked… local to global.
I have not seen Kharvela, but I have seen you and you are the Complete Man, the Colossus and the Emperor of Hearts who never played to the gallery.
(The writer is a Public Policy expert & a Writer, who was fortunate to have spent some unforgettable moments with Biju babu)